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Muhammad Umar Memon is a writer, translator and editor of The Annual of Urdu Studies. He was Professor of Urdu Literature and Islamic Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison, and is an Emeritus Professor now.


I have often wondered about Milan Kundera’s statement regarding the novel: it suffocates in an atmosphere rife with certainties. A binary system strangles it. Rather, it seeks to provide a hospitable space for opposites to coexist, without one trying to eliminate the other. The novelistic reality — just as novelistic temporality — is thus very different from what is observed generally in the quotidian world. Here, varying shades of grey predominate; stark white and solid black are kept relentlessly at bay, though they are welcome on the condition that they fuse together to create a more subtle, more textured, more complex reality, a false, a fabricated reality, if you will; for “truth” — as Albert Camus has put it in his novel The Fall — “like light, blinds,” while falsehood, like the soft evening twilight, makes objects clearer. A character walks the fictional space unabashedly flashing his contradictions.

The dangerous results that might ensue when novelistic reality is confused with empirical reality remind me of an episode from Solzhenitsyn’s novel The Cancer Ward. I recount it for the reader’s amusement. At some point during an inspection of the ward, Vera Kornilyevna discovers a small vial of brown liquid in Kostoglotov’s drawer. It turns out to be issyk-kul root extract. Apparently the despairing patient is treating his cancer on his own with folk medicine, which simply could not be tolerated inside the hospital. Lest the reader of the novel think of the root as a surefire way of treating cancer, Rebecca Frank warns him in her translator’s note: “[T]he lay reader must be warned against accepting this fictional story as in any way a scientific account of the disease and its treatment; and, of course, the patient’s dreams of folk nostrums, such as the birch-tree mushroom (or fungus) and the issyk-kul root, have no scientific basis.” So, readers, bewarned!

For years I taught a course on Urdu fiction in translation. I used to assign each student a short story to study critically for oral presentation in class. On the assigned date for the story, the student would have the first crack at it before it was opened up for general discussion. I spoke last. When we got to Premchand’s short story ‘Kafan’ (The Shroud), not a single student in God knows how many years ever resisted the urge to chastise the grubby pair of father and son, Ghisu and Madhav, up and down for their crass insensitivity to the son’s wife Budhia, who lay dying inside the hut. You would think the pair had gravely offended the students’ moral sense.

Not one student ever tried to look at the story dispassionately as a piece of fiction, which need not conform to any given notion of morality. Fiction demanded that if a character was bad, the writer should make him believably bad, marshalling all his imaginative resources and ingenuity to take him down to the very depths of human depravity, though not suppressing the character’s ability to experience some moments of genuine tenderness and warmth otherwise at odds with his overall moral makeup.

Somehow the students always had a hard time keeping the realms of fiction and reality apart. They could only think in terms of black and white, good or bad, moral or immoral. “You are either with us, or against us” all over again. Occasionally a student broke ranks and attributed a motive to the characters’ inhumanity — namely, society in the form of the local landlord who had reduced the duo to grinding poverty, a poverty that had numbed all moral sense. This interpretation, closer to Premchand’s notion and the purpose of fiction, though I doubt this is entirely the case in this story, again fell wide of the mark. Is this what fiction is supposed to do — present a programme of enfranchisement and social justice, or characters who never look at the seductions to the right and left of them in their mad dash along the straight path? After all, even President Carter, religious and a thorough gentleman, did not deny in his Playboy interview “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” And when have the arts ever brought any palpable change in society? We have seen a demonstration of their inherent inability in these very pages by Zulfikar Ghose (Books&Authors, January 20, 2013). It is, rather, the perpetual tension between the two, the dissatisfaction with the empirical, that often results in the creation of arts, of a virtual imaginative reality. Baudelaire’s ‘The Stranger’ is a case in point.

No doubt Premchand is the granddaddy of Urdu fiction, but I think we would do well to look for his chief contribution not so much in foisting a reformist purpose upon fiction as in helping the fledgling short story emerge as a discrete narrative genre. He was able to give it a wider range of subjects and, importantly, finalise as a dialectical necessity its impending break with the cloying romanticism of his time, best exemplified by writers such as Sajjad Haider Yildirim, Niaz Fatehpuri and Lam Ahmad. ‘The Shroud’ too has its warts. In spite of the author’s attempt to keep his reformist agenda under wraps, it still sneaks out in a few unguarded moments. Nevertheless, the story remains a fairly successful piece of wry humour and biting irony subsumed by a generally dispassionate narrative style. With all their moral apathy, the spastic father and son have something about them that forestalls any attempt to hate them. We would not wish their fate on anyone, but we also cannot run them down for it. The fact that it was written a year before the author’s death in 1936 is itself of no small consequence. Perhaps Premchand was moving decisively toward some notion of fictional autonomy at the tail-end of his life.

This distorted, monochromatic notion of character continues to persist in a sizeable portion of the Urdu fictional product. A wholesome exception was Manto. We must accept his characters for what they are, regardless of how glaringly their contradictions stand out. (Remind yourself of Babu Gopi Nath’s morally questionable lifestyle and his infinite, practically fatherly, concern for the future of his Kashmiri kabutri Zeenat, a prostitute.) Manto has the endearingly uncanny ability to make the honest reader accept the fact of difference, of contradictions, of paradox, of intersecting shades of grey at least as a possibility, a manner of being.

I don’t know why our writers shy away so from recording the compromising details and paradoxes of their characters. This can only happen, perhaps, when the character is divested of all personality and gets dragged into the service of some purpose, some ideal or message, and is thereby reduced to a type, merely a moron who cannot think outside the box, singularly unaffected by the conflicting impulses of his own psyche.

A character’s contrary impulses and paradoxes do not take away from the thrust of a work of art; they only make it more inexorably poignant, more believable. In his brilliant work on poetry, Next Word, Better Word, Stephen Dobyns pulls out an example from Chekhov’s short story ‘Gusev’ to underscore this point. He mentions how his students invariably felt “upset” that Gusev, “who doesn’t seem like a bad man […] should want to punch the Chinaman in the neck, that Chekhov would even permit such a sentiment into his story.” Dobyns argues “such sentiments make the story successful,” and goes on to say, “We need Gusev to want to punch that Chinaman. We need him with all his faults, all his humanity. If we feel he has been cleaned up, we turn away.” He supports his argument by quoting from a letter Chekhov wrote to a young female friend: “To a chemist there is nothing impure on earth. The writer should be just as objective as the chemist; he should liberate himself from everyday subjectivity and acknowledge […] that evil passions are every bit as much a part of life as good ones.”

A few years ago I read a short story, ‘The Penalty,’ by the Moroccan-born French writer Anouar Benmalek (who was present at the 2012 Karachi Literature Festival). This six-page story is not just a masterpiece of concision and economy, it is probably also the most skillful use of punctuation, ellipses, evocative silences and elisions that I have ever seen.

Bashir, an average young man, has been sweet-talked by the emir  — just an old ex-con who’d switched to being an imam — of his neighbourhood mosque into blowing up the soccer stadium exactly at the end of the game and close to the armed guards. Bashir’s day fluctuates between moments of lucidity, when he is in control of his senses, and of memory lapses. The doctor has advised him to always keep a notebook with him to write down every thought — this to remind himself of it after an episode of amnesia. His mind fogs over in the middle of the soccer game. When it snaps back into awareness, he no longer remembers his name. Suddenly he feels the contours of some metal object, predictably a detonating device, inside his pants pocket, and the loaded vest around his chest. What could this be? He flexes his mind hard. When slowly the purpose of the vest becomes evident to him, he panics. “But I’m not a — I can’t be a — I’m me … I’m not a — I can’t have wanted this. When did this —?” He vaguely remembers the imam and rushes to the mosque to have it out with him. “Did you do this to me?” The imam responds angrily, “Are you crazy? Why did you come back?” He reminds Bashir that his mission was to get close to the police officers at the end of the game and push the button. “Sheikh, I tell you no lies. If I truly spoke that cursed yes, then it wasn’t me at all. It was the sick part of me that consented, not the other me, the still healthy one. I swear …”

But it could just as well be the healthy part. The imam resorts to casuistry and finally tries to put some fear into him: “Breaking a vow to the Almighty is doing Satan’s work yourself, and knowingly refusing the eternal bliss of paradise.” He wants to send him back to the stadium, en route to eternal bliss. Bashir would have none of this. “I can’t breathe in this piece of shit belt. Take it off or I’ll start screaming!”

Toward the end of the story, Bashir says,

“Sheikh, my friend assured me God wins all games.”

“Funny way of praising the greatness of the Lord of Heaven and Earth, but yes, I can confirm what he said, He wins every time, with a score of infinity to zero.”

“Even when there’s a penalty?”

“Where do you see a penalty?”

“I’ve never done anything bad to anyone, and look at the situation I’m in. Isn’t that foul worthy of a penalty?”

The imam burst out with an open laugh. “You’ve got a sense of humour, but you’re nothing in the eyes of the Heavenly Plan. You, cause a penalty? Listen, akhoya, a human being is less than a speck of flyshit in an elephant’s ass!”

[…] Suddenly a joyful wrinkle spread across [Bashir’s] forehead. […] “I’m still going to try and score one goal against infinity …”

And he pushed the button. The imam didn’t even have the time to spit out the shocked scream from his brain: “Not in the mosque!”

There are plenty of convolutions and contradictions in Bashir (at one point images come buffeting through his foggy memory: “a coworker’s panties as she stood at the top of a flight of stairs,” a classmate in school touching him in the crotch), enough to ruin his innocence and whatever sympathies a morally uptight/righteous reader might have with regard to his sorry predicament. Memories such as these are hardly the things such a reader can swallow in someone on his way to martyrdom for the sake of God. Ultimately, they can be ignored in view of his medical condition — apraxia, aphasia, agnosia, and all that. But more telling are the paradoxes in the character of the imam, who is sane after all. Here is one: Rolling the plastic beads of his tasbih, he, the factotum of Allah, reminds Bashir of his martyr’s duty:

“But only when the crowd has begun to leave, I repeat —”

“Why only at the end of the game?”

[…] “I don’t like soccer any less for being an imam, akhoya, and I’m dying to see our poor village’s team qualify.”

“Because you know the score?”

“It’s 1-1. I’ve been listening to the radio like everyone. All we need is a tie to qualify. If the bomb exploded before the final whistle, the game would be forfeited and who knows what would happen if we had a rematch.”

Now, let all upright readers straighten out this frivolous paradox of a soccer-loving martyr-maker and his concern for his poor village’s team when he is so hell bent on blowing up humanity and his own people no less. This delightful juxtaposition of the sublime and the profane! These contradictions don’t weaken the story; their perfectly normal presence in the imam only make the focal incident even more chillingly poignant.

Not just this story, Benmalek’s novels — The Lovers of Algeria, Abduction, The Child of an Ancient People and, most of all, O Maria — are breathtaking studies in the construction of complex characters, at once sublime and full of earthly failings. Especially O Maria, whose protagonist, Maria/ Aisha, a crypto-Muslim orphan, a member of the last doomed generation of Moriscos, is so tormented with subliminal grief and guilt that she stumbles “through certain half-deserted streets / The muttering retreats” to calm her agonised soul, and her methods are sure to raise anyone’s hackles. Indeed the novel rubbed the Algerians so badly that they banned it and accused the author of blasphemy.

In reading these novels, it is hard to escape the conclusion that, at the time of writing, an author’s loyalty rests only with himself and his work, not with his country and his nation, which is not to deny his role as a citizen. Long ago, Muhammad Hasan Askari underscored this citizen role in his article ‘Communal Riots and our Literature’ by graphically setting it apart from the author’s role as a writer. He gives the example of some French writers during the cataclysmic period of World War II who had started to produce a series of underground books with the title Les Éditions de Minuit. They were given a major literary award after France became free, but they declined to accept it. They said that everything they had written was simply to serve the nation. It was not literature, nor had they written it as literature.